For the last 30 years, ALTA has provided language training to corporate clients and government agents whose relocation to foreign countries requires them to achieve high levels of proficiency in a new language. High proficiency includes the ability to communicate in an advanced way with native speakers of the new language — a range of people from professionals who use specialized terminology, to everyday people encountered while navigating a new culture: grocers, neighbors, taxi drivers, lawyers, and doctors. Our experience has taught us a lot about language acquisition: the best methods, how long it takes to become fluent, the most helpful exercises, and the importance of going beyond words to learn the nuances of the culture.
If you’ve decided to learn a new language but don’t know where to start, here are five tips that will get you going in the right direction.
1. Self-guided Programs versus Instructor-led Programs
Our experience has taught us that the best way to acquire a new language is through personal customized training led by a professional instructor who is a native speaker of the target language.
There are also many self-guided language programs that may be a good place to start for individuals with zero knowledge of the new language. These resources are unlikely to guide learners beyond basic proficiency levels — greetings, basic requests, and so forth, but many of them do provide good introductions to the new language, and a bit of a foundation before starting intensive training. Self guided options include mp3/cd and book based courses by the Foreign Service Institute and, for free, the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s Open Courseware, a collection of activities, notes, and audio/video lectures.
Community colleges and intensive language institutions like Middlebury’s Language Schools offer the advantage of complete immersion in the language—no English allowed—and you’re forced to keep on track with the study plan. Although learning on your own may be more cost-effective, people with serious language goals and the means to pay tuition would do well to consider total immersion programs. A great middle ground is online instruction. ALTA’s own Online Language Training offers the benefit of personal customized instruction while maintaining the flexibility and mobility of self-study programs.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
An important element to learning a language, no matter what method you choose, is to really study. Every day you need to set aside time in your schedule to practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Here are a few ideas to get you out of the coursework and into real life situations:
- Watch a foreign film without subtitles. You might not understand everything that goes on, but it is a good way to use context and cultural clues to learn words—and to hear how everyday speech sounds like in that language.
- Read one newspaper article in your target language every day. Not only will you catch up on the latest news from around the globe, you’ll also hone your reading comprehension skills.
- Log onto sites like italkie and chat with a language exchange partner. It’s like having a pen pal in the other language, but via video feed!
- Improve your writing skills by starting a journal in the other language. After you write something, submit it to Lang-8, a language exchange website that allows you to submit writing in a foreign language and then have a native speaker correct it for you. You can then, in turn, help others learn your native language by doing the same for them.
3. Focus on the Vocabulary
Chances are, if you know 1000 of the most common vocabulary words in any language, then you can follow 85% of normal speech. Make flash cards of common verbs, nouns, and adjectives and review them on a daily basis. Every time you run across a new word, make a note of it—and then remember to review it until you recognize it on sight/speech. Vocabulary isn’t everything, but it is a huge facet of any language.
4. Follow Through
A day will come, whether one week into learning a language or after several months, when you need a break. No matter how long you need to take off, don’t forget to hit the books again. After taking time off from the language, simply start by reviewing the last couple of activities/chapter/vocabulary words that you worked on. Spend a day or two reviewing to make certain you know it before you move onto more material. Don’t make a habit of taking time off, but remember that it’s ok to take a break every now and then—as long as you remember to put your nose back to the grindstone again.
5. Don’t Stress the Small Stuff
A huge hurdle for many language learners is the need to say and understand everything perfectly. While that’s a good thing, remember, don’t stress out! You’ve just started to learn an entirely new language, something you didn’t grow up hearing spoken in your household or taught at your school. It is natural to mix up words and phrases. Learning a new language isn’t fast or easy, it takes time and work, so don’t be frustrated when you don’t pick up everything on the first try—with the proper guidance, and hard work, you will reach your goal.
Stay tuned to Beyond Words for more advice, audio exercises, and interesting language articles!